Whether in advertising, art, or architecture, our lives are swarmed with symbols whose meanings have developed and varied over time and place. While a decorative owl presiding over the Library of Congress references the wisdom of Athena that endured throughout the classical world, it might appear more ominous on a building in China, where the nocturnal bird is connected with death. “The Chinese hear in the owl’s hooting the exhortation to ‘Dig, dig,’ and so interpret the bird’s call to mean that a grave will soon be required,” write Mark Fox and Angie Wang in Symbols: A Handbook for Seeing.
Their book, recently released by the Monacelli Press, is a compendium to help artists, designers, and curious readers gain a more complex understanding of symbolism in the visual arts. Last year, Fox and Wang, both design professors at the California College of the Arts, got some press attention for their subversive Trump logo of interlocking Ts that manifest a negative image of a swastika. That symbol is the very last entry in the book, where the writers note its long history as “an emblem of blessing and good fortune” — its Sanskrit name, “Svastika,” means “It is well” — and its caustic adoption by the Nazis. “The swastika now simultaneously signifies both good and evil: a life symbol that is equated with death,” they write.
The majority of the 70 categories in Symbols are less charged and quite broad. For example, “flower” is one, including everything from bridal bouquets that signal purity to the cherry blossom, which in Japan suggests good fortune and the transience of life.
“We specifically chose to examine the narrative breadth and power of familiar signifiers because of their familiarity,” Fox and Wang write. “How often do we think of doors in symbolic terms as we pass through them? Or consider the metaphoric capacities of the triangle or square? What we think we know we no longer truly see or fully appreciate — it appears that familiarity doesn’t so much breed contempt as it does blindness.”
In this way, the book is similar to Bruno Munari’s 1960s exploration of three basic shapes (the circle, square, and triangle). Those forms are included in Symbols (the triangle evoked by both the Great Pyramids and the American fallout shelter sign from the Cold War), as well as visuals from nature, animals, the human body, the human-made, and the abstract. The examples are wonderfully omnivorous.
For instance, the tiger is explored through the 1940s American “Flying Tigers” pilots, who painted vicious teeth on their planes; Ottoman tiles with tiger stripes that may have been designed to ward off evil (or just as an aesthetic appreciation); and the 1793 “Tipu’s Tiger” mechanical organ, which, with its automaton of a colonist being mauled, was a contraption of Indian resistance. The spider, meanwhile, can have connotations of maternity, as in Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman” sculpture or a Navajo woven blanket, but the US Army’s 7th Division also used a spidery black widow shape as a symbol of deadliness. And then there are more abstract images like the nimbus — a cloud of light around the body — shown in representations of Buddha and Shiva, portraits of deified Roman emperors, and the European collar ruffs of the 16th and 17th centuries.
“Reading and comprehending signs and symbols can be as difficult as absorbing any new verbal and textual language,” writes author and art director Steven Heller in a foreword to Symbols. “Interpreting — or projecting — a sign correctly, however, can mean the difference between praise and condemnation, success and failure, life and death. Very few symbols are as crystal clear as the common roadway STOP sign, and the beauty of this book is showing that symbolic language is not concise and univocal, but fluid, contradictory, and richly endowed with narratives both past and present.”